How do we define reconciliation?
There are three key definitions for reconciliation. The first involves the mending of a broken relationship. This could be a personal relationship, or a relationship between different groups of people. The second definition is to make something consistent, and the third is to submit to, or accept, something unpleasant.
When we hear reconciliation today, it typically refers to bringing people back together for the purpose of healing and preventing future harm.
Relationships break frequently, hypocrisy runs rampant, and entire swaths of the population have been harmed by past and present exclusion, ostracization, or hate. Reconciliation is and has always been paramount to building and maintaining healthy relationships and social order.
With whom do we need to reconcile?
Reconciliation is often tied to political movements or civil unrest. For example, in 2016 President Barack Obama called for the U.S. government to pay $492 million to 17 American Indian tribes as reparations for its history of mismanaging natural resources and other tribal assets. In 2009, President Obama issued a formal apology to Native Americans for historic violence and injustices. These are both forms of and attempts to reconcile past mistreatment of the American Indians by the U.S. Government.
Many Americans today are also striving for racial reconciliation. That is, reconciling tensions between white people and people of color. These tensions date back 400 years to when Africans were first traded to European settlers in exchange for money (although racial injustice is as old as humanity itself). Racism and inequality in America have occurred ever since, although most people concede that great strides have been made toward equality (particularly since the 1960s and Civil Rights movements led by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and other notable figures). Still, much work needs to be done to ensure that people of color are afforded the same opportunities as whites in America. Humility can help us pursue this racial reconciliation.
The church can do a lot to heal brokenness, but it first has to admit that brokenness exists. Unfortunately, when it comes to racial reconciliation, many churchgoers still don’t see that there’s a problem. The first step is to admit that injustice occurs. And when in doubt, it’s best to ask those who claim to have been wronged.
Apart from systemic civil issues like racism and social injustice, reconciliation can also be deeply personal. Perhaps we need to reconcile with a sibling, spouse, parent, friend, or co-worker. This kind of reconciliation does not require the help of political leaders, but it does require a similar laying down of one’s pride.
How do we reconcile?
In order to make things right with someone else, we often must deny our selfish nature to always be right. It requires a sacrifice of pride for the betterment of someone else’s life. We have to say we’re sorry. We have to change our minds and our behavior (or possibly change laws) to ensure that the wrongs done against a person or peoples do not continue. Essentially, the best way to say you’re sorry is to not do it again.
Generally speaking, reconciliation requires forgiveness, often on both sides. Although it is possible that neither side in a division is to blame (for example, if accident or death caused the damage), it is still common for one or both parties to need reparation.
How is reconciliation different from forgiveness?
Both sides of an argument must cooperate for reconciliation to take place. You can forgive unilaterally, even if the person who harmed you is in complete denial, absent, or dead. But you cannot reconcile with someone who isn’t there to be reconciled with.
Even if the person is physically present, there’s no way to force a reconciliation on someone who doesn’t want it. They may be refusing to forgive you, or they may be refusing to admit that they themselves have done harm. It may be a little of both. In any case, the reconciliation is going nowhere until both people are on board.
Reconciliation and forgiveness have different goals in mind. Forgiveness strives to remove an emotional burden—to release the other person from your own condemnation—to eliminate the mental “debt” the person owes you in your own mind. Reconciliation goes further—it attempts to restore a relationship either to its old state or to something better.
Is it ever a bad idea to reconcile with someone?
When would you NOT want to reconcile? If the other person continues to be a danger to you, either physically or emotionally. It’s not a good idea to reconcile with someone who is abusive. In fact, you may not want to even meet or speak to a person who has caused you harm. You can forgive—that is, release your grudges—at a distance; but reconciliation requires getting close enough to be hurt again. If that’s unsafe, don’t do it. Even the Bible doesn’t require us to reconcile with such people. Forgiveness is commanded; “going back to the way things were” is not.
Where in the Bible does it talk about reconciliation?
Jesus gives us a road map for how to reconcile with one another. He says this:
“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church.” (Matthew 18:15-17)
Let’s take that advice apart. First, he says, “Go and talk to the other person, just the two of you alone.” (Only if it is safe to do so.) By talking alone, you prevent the whole mess from going public and you spare both sides embarrassment. You also make it possible for one or both of you to reconsider your positions without feeling the need to “double down” on what you previously said or did, because no one else is watching.
But suppose the one-on-one thing doesn’t work. You can take along a mutual friend—someone who has seen the whole thing play out and who really wants to see the two of you reconcile. Sometimes the extra viewpoint is just what you need when you’re trying to open someone else’s eyes—or even your own. The extra person may see or think of an angle neither of you could find on your own.
But what if this still isn’t working, and you really, really want to keep trying for that reconciliation? Jesus says that, lastly, we ought to bring the issue to the church. Jesus’ original words were given to his followers, so they don’t fit exactly if Christians are not involved. But even with non-Christians, there is merit to taking the issue to a larger community. This community may be family, friends, or even the government (in cases regarding social justice).
A Biblical precedence for reconciliation?
This is important, and it makes the whole thing worthwhile. Reconciliation is in the very nature of God. Jesus Christ himself was sent to earth to reconcile us to him. Colossians 1:19-22 says,
“For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation—”
No greater reconciliation could ever occur than that of Christ removing our sins from us and calling us holy. If such a grand debt can be erased, how can we not consider reconciling with those we have wronged or have wronged us?
2 Corinthians 5:18-21 goes on to say that we are Christ’s ambassadors on earth. It’s in our heritage to continue the trend he set in place when he was reconciled to us.
“All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation:
that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.
We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.
God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
By reconciling first to God, we can allow the Holy Spirit to lead us. The Lord can then take the reins and direct us toward the people and causes that need reconciliation. He may even call us participate in his ministry of reconciliation to people or groups of people whom we have not personally wronged. It’s only through Christ living in us that we have the power to redeem broken relationships, change minds, reset cultural opinions, and enact social change.
Jesus was sent to earth to reconcile the relationship between God and humanity. That’s our template for how he wants us to unite and reconcile with one another.